End of war, beginning of hope — perhaps
Just as we found ourselves caught up in holiday festivities amid the waning days of 2011, we were already anticipating the possibilities of 2012. It seems that even as our patience runs out on personal and global concerns at the end of a year, along comes the calendar with another chance to get it right.
It may be, after all simply a feature of the old adage: “Hope springs eternal!” Whether it’s on the level of a New Year’s resolution to stick to a diet this time round, or an attempt to resolve a family argument or our nation’s search for alternatives to war, we all need a new beginning. The New Year arrived then just in time — as it always does. The question remains: what will we do with it?
For most of us, it is hard enough to juggle the tugs and pulls of everyday life without having to balance the great worldly problems of war and peace. As frustrated as we have been by the interminable nature of recent wars, many of us still seem perched on the sidelines, preoccupied by our everyday concerns and by the economy, which seem initially to have impacts closer to home.
For those who have sent their loved ones off to fight in far corners of the world, however, war has been no distant phenomenon. The gaps in households are very real. The very technology that connects us instantaneously to friends and colleagues has allowed soldiers to carry their families with them to the war zones. While it allows loved ones to feel connected on a daily basis, it comes filled with trepidation lest each one be a final contact.
Technology changes everything, or seems to. We no longer feel a sense of the barriers of time and space that used to divide us geographically. Yet for all our cyber closeness, when it comes to the extremes of loss and joy, nothing comes close to physical presence; nothing quite replaces a shoulder or an embrace.
Better times to come—we hope
One recent harbinger of better times has been the announcement at year’s end that the United States is no longer at war in Iraq. Though we are still involved in Afghanistan, our withdrawal from Iraq offers us an opportunity to consider engaging in diplomacy, which some consider a form of foreign policy.
Tucked safely away here in this island corner of the world, I find myself wondering whether there aren’t other ways to navigate the world than through military intervention. I keep thinking we might exert our global influence through humanitarian, cultural and infrastructure assistance. My friends say this view is naïve.
The world that our children inherit
However, children born during the first decade of the twenty-first century in the United States (and in many parts of the world) — including two grandchildren of our own — have grown up in a country always at war. They have never known peacetime. Is this the world we wish to bequeath them? Is this the best we have to offer?
We have sent the generation that came before them to war. Eighteen and nineteen year olds have watched their friends fall beside them even as they have killed others they’ve been taught to call enemy. Teenagers just a bit younger are home playing at electronic war — two of these ours as well — at games with loud, graphic and horrific images exploding on their screens. However, safe in their rooms, they are shielded by an illusion that there are no real consequences following aggressive actions.
Are these youngsters to be the next round of combatants on a battlefield in which they are targeting others like themselves, even as they are being targeted — but this time with real weapons?
So it is that while I am lodged safely within my tree house metaphor, I worry that our politicians worry so much about “family values” that they seem to have lost sight of some very basic ones — first among these is what we used to call the “sanctity of human life.”
I wonder about what our children learn from us — the adults governing their world — other than that our strategies for resolving the world’s problems are to go to war.
We model the very behavior we say we abhor: very early on — in pre-school and kindergarten — we teach problem-solving to arrive at solutions to conflicts. We pay lip-service to the idea of finding healthy outlets for anger and alternatives to confrontation, yet we choose over and over to maintain a state of war. Do we think that children will not notice these contradictions?
Closing down one theater of war
Still just at the end of the old year, we seemed to have created a wedge: we are closing down one “theater of war” — one battle ground. With the exception of a few bold headlines in a few prominent newspapers, there seems to me little notice given to this extraordinary event — that is, the end of nearly ten years of war in Iraq.
I have always thought that the end of war anywhere and everywhere was a thing to celebrate — something to stand on roof-tops and shout for glee about! However, in looking for reactions to the recent news, I’ve found a number of responses that have given me pause. Some of those very troops who have been serving — though home from Iraq — are uncertain about whether or not they’ll be deployed to Afghanistan. We cannot exult yet.
The Minnesota Star Tribune noted recently (December 25, 2011) that it was the small towns of Minnesota that had “supplied most of the state’s soldiers and bore the greatest burden of the war’s casualties with the human tally still being counted.” The writer saw the end of the Iraqi War as marked by “relief, anxiety and anguish.”
Though clearly breathing a great sigh of relief at having loved ones back again, many family members and service men and women themselves expressed apprehension about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. One mother in the small town of Madelia, the paper said, “wrestles with the unwelcome distinction that her twenty-year old son was the last Minnesota soldier killed in the war.”
Hardly a blip
Also, the “City Room” news blog in The New York Times (Dec.15, 2011) ran a story marking the end of conflict in Iraq entitled “There was a War? And it Ended?” The news seemed to cause hardly a blip, the piece pointed out, and brought no ticker tape parades, “and no celebratory kissing” in the streets of Manhattan as there had been at the end of World War II.
While the reporters attempted to compare the two wars, persons interviewed in Times Square felt they were vastly different — with the earlier conflict one about which there was unanimity of support unlike the divided attitudes about the wars today. As to the apparent disinterest in the news, one person said, “People are worried about jobs, the price of gas, not the war.” I continue to worry about war.
Dulce et decorum est
Both concern about and indifference to war are, however, not unique to our time: war has been a recurring mode of human interaction from our earliest days. Our leaders and even our poets have urged upon us the glorious notion that men and women can perform no higher service than to give up their lives for their country.
And so it is we read the Roman poet Horace near the close of the first century BC exhorting, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Horace was espousing a standard belief for his time, but one that has continued to this day to justify leaders bent on taking their countries and sending their young people to war.
In 1917, in an indictment of World War I, poet Wilfred Owen extracts those very words from Horace to condemn the act of going to war. In a poem taking its title from the first four words of the Latin quote, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen directs his accusation at those whose rhetoric sends their youth to war. If leaders knew first hand the choking horrors of the battlefield, the hideous nature of death by gas attack, then, Owen says, they would not, “tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory/ The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and seemly to die for ones country).
The New Year is here. We are once again at a juncture of possibilities—at a moment when personal concern for our own children may join with universal concern for the world’s children. Awareness of their vulnerability may drive us at last to a genuine effort to practice making peace. It seems this would be a legacy worthy of leaving our children.